First Drive: 2016 Volvo XC90 T6

Feb 23, 2015 08:00 AM EST | Jeff Jablansky

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Since Volvo first unveiled the follow-up to its boffo XC90 sport-utility vehicle last summer, the company has been promoting its Swedish heritage as the next-generation model's bona fides.

That's why we thought we might be hearing things upon starting the 2016 XC90 T6 for the first time, as local legend Abba's "Angel Eyes" came on at precisely the same moment. Further inspection revealed an interior that was a smorgasbord of luxurious goodies, and a second-row with limo-like leg and shoulder room. Chalk it up to jet lag and the effects of a desafortunat stomach bug, but we thought we might be in a haze.

Although it was Abba playing in the background (courtesy of a preloaded audio library), the new XC90 is tuned to the beat of the EDM crowd, using its Swedish heritage to bolster a startlingly compelling package. In its first attempt at an SUV, Volvo used every trick in the book to make its contender look viable on paper. For its second try, Volvo is approaching the challenge differently, letting the SUV prove itself beyond numbers.

The outgoing XC90 was a natural extension of Volvo's wagon lineup in its long-roof styling and tall taillights. Its replacement uses soft curves and sharp lines to draw attention to its shape. The first-generation XC90 touted a brawny V-8 built by Yamaha. The '16 model uses a four-banger.

If ever there were a complete upheaval of thought in the modern house of Volvo, it has manifested in the 2016 XC90.

Read on for our first drive impressions of the all-new XC90 T6—and come back later for our first take of the XC90 T8 hybrid.

What is it?

The XC90 is Volvo's midsize SUV, designed with growing families in mind, and almost aspect of it redefines the Swedish term for "gravitas." The T6, which uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine—more on that later—will be the bread and butter of the XC90 lineup, which will eventually comprise several five- and seven-passenger models.

The first thing you notice about the XC90 is how it establishes its presence. To describe the cant of its nose and the broadness of its shoulders as "butch" or "masculine" is almost to mistake its beauty for a design crying out for attention. It has a noticeably more styled exterior than the model it replaces, but it's quietly strong.

And then you see the pièce de résistance, the XC90's interior, which is something like a hedonistic modernist's dream come true. Almost every surface is covered in leather, soft-touch materials, or brushed aluminum, and the result is both minimalistic and stunning.

Get used to seeing this SUV everywhere.

How does it drive?

Precisely, and quickly. In deciding to check out an XC90, Volvo expects consumers to place a great degree of confidence in their Drive-E four-cylinder technology, upon which the company is betting the farm. The only engine in play for the United States market at launch is the aforementioned 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is both supercharged and turbocharged, and also available in high-end S60 and V60 models. A diesel will be offered in Europe, but not initially in the U.S., and the XC90's transmission is an 8-speed automatic.

No other luxury carmaker has yet been audacious enough to put a four-banger in their SUVs, but it certainly works in the XC90 T6. If you didn't know what was under the hood, you'd credit the acceleration off the line to a much larger engine, as you might passing power and cruising ability. Steering and engine performance are adjustable to the driver's liking, while the brakes and suspension work exceptionally well just as they're calibrated. We'll have to wait for more inclement conditions in order to test the XC90's Haldex all-wheel drive system.

On top of its capability on the open road, the XC90 worked quite well squeezing through tight spots in Spain's smaller cities and villages. It's no Fiat 500, but it maneuvered deftly through one-ways, around alleys, and in crowded metropolitan areas.

What's it like inside?

A cut above. From the shape of the seats to the ergonomics, the XC90 makes everything about driving a more comfortable task. We loved the butteriness of touching the primary and secondary controls, and sliding the aluminum cupholder cover to and fro. Each of the three rows has generous passenger space—even the third row, which is meant for passengers under six feet tall but will accommodate two adults.

The big news from the XC90's cabin is Sensus, Volvo's proprietary infotainment system that will make its consumer debut on the XC90. The good news is that the system is comprehensive in its ability to perform tasks, and its user experience mimics that of an iPhone's swipes and pinches in ease of use and learning curve. We wish that the nine-inch screen were rotated 90 degrees to allow for a wider map and keyboard, although we suppose it might interfere with the feng shui of the cabin.

The only downside: Where material quality shines, less attention was paid to sound deadening. At highway speed, noticeably more road noise seeps in to the cabin than in its competitors.

What's its specialty?

Turning an offbeat idea into the style leader.

How's the competition?

Primed for battle. The XC90 T6 will go up against an established group of luxury SUVs, including the Acura MDX, BMW X5, Lexus RX, and Mercedes-Benz M-class—none of which offer a four-cylinder engine at any trim level. From our early drive, it seems like the XC90 will have no trouble holding its own. This will be an interesting competition to watch.

Its most innovative feature?

A button located starboard in the cargo area can lower the XC90's load height by up to two inches, on vehicles equipped with the optional air suspension ($1800), making it easier to stash groceries, ficuses, and canines.

Overall:

A family SUV designed for an EDM crowd that has fond memories for Swedish pop.

Highs:

Gorgeous looks, mighty power from a small heart, exemplary outward visibility, plush interior, generous third-row space, outstanding value for money.

Lows:

Can be noisy at highway speeds, no diesel option for the U.S. market at outset.

The ideal setup:

The XC90 T6 Inscription ($55,495) is the ideal XC90, loaded with nearly every option to satisfy drivers and passengers alike. Add the enhanced climate package that includes a head-up display ($1950), the air suspension ($1800), and superior Bowers & Wilkens stereo ($2500) for the ultimate road tripping SUV.

By the numbers: 2016 Volvo XC90 T6

MSRP: $49,985 (including $995 destination charge)

Power / drive wheels: 2.0-liter, 320-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine / all-wheel drive

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission

EPA fuel economy: N/A

In showrooms: July 2015

*The XC90 tested was shod with high-performance summer tires that will not be standard equipment in North America. We hope to compare this model's results with a more representative model in the upcoming months.

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